Becoming a Lean, Mean, Learning Machine
In the early days of a new business, you make choices—conscious and unconscious—that will influence your culture far into the future. If you’re not careful, those choices can become patterns that limit your ability to thrive. Consider that today’s most trusted and important institutions—in business, health care, government, philanthropy, and beyond—are struggling to stay relevant and useful in the face of new entrants and rapid change. It’s as if they were wired for a completely different environment.
When you consider the speed with which these companies enter and dominate markets, it’s clear that organizations everywhere need to upgrade their OS or they risk extinction. Whether you’re a freelancer with aspirations of building the next great brand or the CEO of a publicly traded company—that means you.
VISIONARY VS. COMMERCIAL
Legacy businesses tend to focus on commercial outcomes: to be the number one player in a market or hit an earnings target. For them, success is about business performance. But for responsive companies, vision and impact are paramount. Making a “dent in the universe” trumps anything else they might achieve. Everything they do, including financial success, is in service of that goal.
LEAN VS. LARGE
The last age of business was defined in part by an intense desire for growth. Before the age of software, it took a lot of people to scale a business, so growth came primarily from geographic and market expansion. Efficiencies of scale and barriers to entry meant that having a huge sales force or a massive R&D team were valuable assets. The cost of that scale, however, has been a loss of speed, agility, and simplicity. The new guard prizes leanness in every aspect of operations, from team size to project budgets.
OPEN VS. CLOSED
In decades past, the core value of legacy institutions was isolation—closed doors, offices, silos, departments, and secret innovation processes. One of the major shifts of the digital age has been pervasive connectivity—to each other and to every piece of information ever created. What this has revealed is a far more complex system, with countless overlapping constituents, where real value is often at the intersection of unplanned encounters and collaborations. Information is still power, but it’s more powerful when it is shared and permeates boundaries. In a Responsive OS, value is placed on transparency, connections, and community. This gives birth to open innovation, tightly knit cultures, and a greater collective intelligence.
LEARNING VS. SUSTAINING
Once you become successful, you almost certainly have something to lose, and the natural instinct is to protect that success. Large legacy businesses tend to have this attitude. They are naturally risk averse because they have so much to lose. Meanwhile, start-ups and smaller competitors with nothing to lose are willing to bet the farm on innovations, take risks, and even fail, in pursuit of the best possible solution for a market. And enough of them hit home runs every year to shape and reshape the world around us. Whatever the size of your company, adopting a Responsive OS means that you view every activity as a chance to learn and refine your process. Success means never settling for what worked in the past.
EMERGENT VS. CONTROLLED
Legacy organizations tend to operate cultures that maintain tight control of the empire. Because of their sheer size, bureaucracy and hierarchy have become natural reflexes. They are used to being able to reach out and shape the world—and their customers—at will. They don’t let things happen; they make things happen. Responsive companies, by contrast, are comfortable with a lot more uncertainty. This manifests in many ways. First, they let their org structure morph and shape-shift to reflect the nature of the work at hand. Roles are fluid. People wear many hats. Further, they let products and platforms find their true purpose in collaboration with their users; as the product is used (and misused), the feedback loop is open. Twitter, for instance, did not know it was going to disrupt the news media. That future was allowed to emerge. Firms with a Responsive OS rely on an intuition about where to dig but not what they might find. They are open to the possibilities and all the upside that comes with them.
Solving a Real Problem
In a perfect world, new ideas would only be generated in response to glaring problems. Yet, as a culture, we’ve become so obsessed with “innovation” that we imbue it with an intrinsic value all its own. We act as if a new idea is good just because it’s new. But what if we were forced to stop and ask ourselves: “Why do we need that?”
DON’T JUST INVENT SOMETHING, FIX SOMETHING
Ideally, the impulse to invent emerges organically, from witnessing—or, even better, experiencing—something that isn’t working and then not being able to rest until you fix it
Of course, in reality, new ideas don’t always come about in direct response to an issue. If you have a creative mind, you might wake up in the middle of the night wondering, “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ?” Or, you might even deliberately sit down one day and think, “I’m sick of my job. I’m sick of this life. What can I build?” But even if your idea didn’t result from a burning desire to fix something—especially if it didn’t—you should run it through a rigorous test to ensure it’s something the world really needs. And that process starts by asking, “What problem am I solving?”
FIREPROOFING YOUR IDEA WITH THE “WHY?” TEST
Once you’ve identified the problem—a desire or need that a real person might actually have—then it’s time to go deeper. This is called the “why test.” Have you ever spent time with a two-year-old that keeps asking “Why?” no matter what response you give? It’s time to channel that two-year-old. Let’s travel back in time and imagine ourselves in the nineteenth-century equivalent of a hoodie, perhaps it’s a mid-length sack coat, which, according to Wikipedia, replaced the frock coat for less formal occasions. And, exciting news, we just invented the car! Pretty amazing, right? Let’s take a moment to congratulate ourselves and imagine the IPO.
Asking the Right Questions
“One does not begin with answers,” the legendary business consultant Peter Drucker once remarked. “One begins by asking, ‘What are our questions?’ ”
Questioning is perhaps most important when you’re at that critical stage of forming a company and developing a clear sense of mission and purpose. The questions you ask will guide the choices you make, the directions you move in, the opportunities you pursue (or fail to pursue), and the culture you create.
The relatively easy questions are the practical ones that are asked on a routine basis: How can we do this or that task a bit more efficiently? Where can we save a few dollars? But questions that address mission and purpose—the “why” of your business—are more challenging. Here are seven such questions. Tackle them early—but learn to live with them, too, because these are questions you should keep asking, again and again, as your business grows and matures.
- Why are we here in the first place?
- If we disappeared, who would miss us? and why?
- What business are we really in?
- How can we become a cause and not just a company?
- What are we willing to sacrifice?
- How can we make a better experiment?
- What is our mission question?
Keep asking yourself these seven questions—and lots of other ones—and it will help you figure out what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you might do it better. As Panera’s Shaich says: “Figuring out what you want to accomplish is a continual search—and questions are the means to the search.”
Designing Your Product to Work, Like Magic
The word “design” has traditionally been used to describe the happy marriage of function and form. A chair can be comfortable and beautiful. An invitation can be clear and convey the personality of the event. Every object that serves a functional purpose can be made to not just work but be pleasurable to use and behold, representing the deep craftsmanship that we humans are capable of. But in this day and age, thinking of product design as form—as something purely visual—feels limiting.
How, then, should we consider invisible design as we are building and evolving our own products? It boils down to three simple principles:
- Don’t limit the shape of the solution too early. It’s common for people to approach building new products with technological constraints or preconceived notions of what the end solution should look like. Doing this hampers true innovation. Saying, “We need an app that . . .” automatically assumes that the best solution is an app, when maybe it isn’t. Instead, as Tesla co-founder Elon Musk advises, work from “first principles.” Ask yourself what would need to happen for the problem to be resolved if you were free from all constraints. From there, work your way back into more practical solutions.
- Reduce the number of steps required. Cut out as many stipulations, actions, unnecessary choices, and extraneous options as you can. An action menu with twenty items is harder to use than an action menu with two, because reading, processing, and deciding among twenty options requires your brain to take many more cognitive steps. Similarly, receiving a poorly packaged product in the mail will require you to get up, find a pair of scissors, do the work of dismantling the packaging, and get rid of annoying packing peanuts or Styrofoam, all of which involve more steps than getting a package with an easy-rip mechanism and no extraneous pieces to dispose of.
- Look for opportunities to lean on familiar patterns or mental models. For instance, if you’re designing a gesture system for an app, conforming to the laws of the physical world makes it easier to understand. If flicking upward expands an object, flicking downward should dismiss it, and ideally all similar objects in the app should behave this way. Likewise, if you are designing an editing interface, don’t make the user flip between an “edit” mode with a bunch of input boxes and a “published” mode for display. As in the real world, editing should feel as close to direct manipulation as possible so users don’t have to perform a translation of these different models in their heads.
Recruiting an Army of Allies
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a Eurorail locomotive, and better than any paid advertising, an army of allies is the greatest asset you can cultivate. If you’re just getting started and wondering where you should devote your focus, here’s the answer: devote it to recruiting and serving these people.
STEP 1: INVITE YOUR ARMY TO SERVE
An army does not materialize out of nowhere or assemble on its own. The most important thing you can do to gain allies and attention is to produce good work. Take a stand—do something that matters! Next, make it clear that you welcome people to your mission. Give them something to believe in and a reason to care.
In a traditional army, the foot soldiers serve at the whim of commanders, and a clear hierarchy is maintained. But your charge, as the leader of your all-volunteer army, is essentially to serve. Every day, start by asking yourself two questions:
- What am I making?
- Whom am I helping?
STEP 2: IN TURN, SERVE YOUR ARMY
When you make the focus of your work what you can do for people instead of what they can do for you, you’re not only being a good person; you’re also building the loyalty of your small army.
Like relationships, loyalty isn’t created in a single conversation or transaction. Instead, it’s built over time. One of the best ways you can establish loyalty is through a series of touchstones—small things you repeatedly do that create a positive impact in someone’s life.
Communicating for Speed, Clarity, and Innovation
One of the greatest drains on a company’s resources is a lack of clarity and direction. No matter how fast a runner you are, if you’re running in the wrong direction, you’ll never win the race. Great leaders know this. If your business’s strategy and goals aren’t communicated clearly—both from you to your team and internally among the team members themselves—you will waste the most precious resource you have: time.
But how do you establish a culture that supports great communication? Given that we live in an era in which our communication channels have proliferated wildly, the easy answer is to assume that it will just take time.
CREATE REDUNDANCY, REPEAT YOURSELF CONSTANTLY
Never assume your team knows the outcomes of the decisions you make on a daily basis. Assuming—instead of actively informing—guarantees they will spend more time guessing what they should be doing versus actually doing it. To ensure that you’re regularly communicating both the big picture and the reasoning behind daily decisions, here are a few tactics you can use:
Have a colleague join you in all of your meetings (and it doesn’t have to be the same one for every meeting). Empower him or her to inform the rest of the team about the key decisions that were made and how it impacts the business’s direction.
Repeat yourself. You likely spend your days talking to a number of different audiences. While repeating the same message might feel tedious, it’s essential for your message to be heard. Remember: even if you’re repeating yourself dozens of times a day, each person that you collaborate with is hearing it once, at best.
Err on the side of openness. Many leaders are shocked to find out the degree to which their teams already know something is happening, even if the details are murky. Rumors of a big new client, layoffs, bonuses, or any important decision can disseminate widely before any details emerge. Preempt this by being as transparent as possible as early as possible.